"We can’t tell people how to vote."
I hear that phrase often. Some within the Church who say it think they are giving clear advice about what Churches – and other tax-exempt organizations – are restricted from doing.
But it’s hardly clear advice. In fact, it’s totally useless advice.
If we mean to say that Churches, under current law, cannot say "Vote for John Smith," then we should say, "Churches under current law cannot say ‘Vote for John Smith.’"
But there are many other things Churches can say and have said. The United States Catholic Bishops, for example, wrote the following paragraph in their 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life:
"We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue -- or lack thereof -- is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest" (n.34).
So did they "tell people how to vote" or not?
How about the following line from the Vatican’s Doctrinal Note on The Participation of Catholics in Political Life: "A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals" (n.4).
Did the Vatican "tell people how to vote" or not?
Obviously, to assert that "we can’t tell people how to vote" is so vague as to be meaningless If we mean endorsing candidates, that’s one thing. The Church as an institution cannot do that, but pastors and individual believers, as well as organizations not under the same restrictions, certainly can. It is, in fact, a spiritual work of mercy to inform one’s neighbors about the candidates and urge them to vote for the best choice.
But short of making endorsements, the Church can and must give people moral guidance about how to vote, just as the Vatican and the United States bishops do in the quotes mentioned above. If we fail to give such guidance, we fail in our mission as the light of the world, and become as irrelevant as a lamp under a bushel basket.
Such a failure is especially grievous when our votes affect the lives and deaths of tens of millions of the most defenseless children, threatened by abortion. If the Church cannot speak at a time like this, what are the stones of our great buildings for, after all? Indeed, if we are silent, the very stones will cry out.